Celebration - Disney’s Dream Town in Florida

Walt Disney’s dream to build the perfect town finally came true. Two decades after breaking ground, Celebration, Florida continues to confound the critics.

On any given Sunday morning, residents of Celebration, Florida, make their way to church along lush‚ beautifully kept streets as joggers loop around the man-made lake and local vegetable and fruit growers set up for the day’s farmers’ market. It is an overwhelmingly pleasant scene – nothing is out of place.

Celebration, population 8,000, is the picture perfect all-American town.

Color-coded homes are symmetrically arranged across four main neighborhoods that fan out from the shopping and dining streets of a compact town center. There are four churches and an elementary school. A golf course wraps around the town like a snug, green blanket.

The Newsomes, who are one of the Celebration pioneer families, have just been told that they can’t plant a pygmy palm tree in their front yard. Photo: Edward Linsmier

The town was founded a stone’s throw away from Disney World in 1994. It was Walt Disney himself who, in the 1960s, first conceived of such a place. Walt didn’t live to see his dream come true, but Celebration is the reality of his experimental small-town community planned out to the last little detail.

It is also the antidote to the standard American model of sprawling suburbia, car culture and its detrimental effects on communites. The people that live here do, of course, have cars, but they are hidden in garages tucked behind the neat houses – a novel concept in the US where parked cars and garage doors are usually the primary features of most facades.

The Walt Disney Company pulled out of the day-to-day running of Celebration in 2004, but the company still tightly regulates the town. The company, for example, holds indefinite veto power over the homeowners’ association, which makes sure residents follow the rules that are laid down in the thick binder that buyers receive upon purchasing a property. Homeowners are fined for hanging brightly colored curtains in their windows, for using the wrong type of materials in their yards and for parking an RV in front of the house.

“Back when we’d just moved in, people used to drive past and ask if we had to wear costumes when we were outside,” laughs John Newsome, who has lived here with his wife Barbara since 1996, the year the Celebration “pioneer” families moved in. “I started wearing Mickey Mouse ears when I was mowing the lawn just for the hell of it.”

The Newsomes have in fact just been handed a ruling from the association: no pygmy palm trees in their new front yard landscaping. “They’re in a no-palm tree frame of mind so we didn’t get any palms,” says John.

To build Celebration, Disney drained the water, moved out the alligators and raised the ground in the Osceola County swamp where the town now sits. The Newsomes, who heard about Celebration in a press release, were among the 5,000 people who entered the lottery to buy one of the first 474 homes built here. Theirs is a baby blue cottage in Celebration’s West Village.

Photo: Edward Linsmier

It’s only during holidays that rules can be bent, and that the outside world comes knocking – during Halloween some 2,000 costumed children come trick or treating at the Newsomes’ house. A neighbor down the road goes all out, calling in construction workers to build a pirate ship with life-sized fake cannons in the front yard. But that’s as far as allowances go, Barbara explains, “They’ll let you know when it’s time to take your Christmas lights down.”

From the start, property prices in Celebration have stayed well above average for the region, thanks no doubt to the strict upkeep of the town and its homes.

But the gloss from the original 1996 Celebration brochure, which portrayed it as a safe and idyllic place where the cinema showed cartoons on Saturdays and children chased fireflies, has worn off a little.Photo: Edward Linsmier

The 2008 recession hit harder here than in the rest of Florida – one of the worst affected states in the US – with foreclosures affecting one in 20 Celebration residents as well as the cinema, which remains closed. Property prices dropped by 60%.

They’ve since bounced back, but there have been other blips. A grisly murder, the only one in the town’s history, took place during Thanksgiving in 2010 when a resident was strangled and beaten to death at his home by an out-of-towner. That was followed days later by a bankrupt homeowner barricading himself inside his foreclosed house and committing suicide as the SWAT team moved in.

“There’s more than meets the eye here,” says Desiree Lecaros, a 20-year-old psychology student who grew up in Celebration and now studies in Gainesville, in northern Florida. She gives an emphatic “God, no!” when asked if she’s moving back to Celebration after college.

“It’s like living on Wisteria Lane in Desperate Housewives. I used to be into Disney but you get bored of it here.” Then, pointing to a neighbor’s house, its porch covered in Mickey Mouse paraphernalia: “You can tell those people moved inrecently.”

It’s natural that Celebration would have its detractors – and it’s a project that’s easy to mock. But what it lacks in grit, and perhaps a sense of irony, it makes up for in its people-centered approach to town planning and community-building. It is a lovely place where neighbors chat on their porches and say hello in the streets.

Many Celebration residents were drawn here by the promise of a community. Disney launched various clubs, including the Gardening Club and the local chapter of the Rotary Club, to connect prospective residents with each other.

Photo: Edward Linsmier

And despite the blips, the town is still a popular place. An adjacent piece of land is now under residential development, another school is being built and an extension to the Presbyterian Church is in the planning stage. Young families are arriving to start lives here, many attracted by the school, which tops regional rankings every year.

Of course, it helps to be a Disney fan to accept Celebration’s paternalistic system of rules and regulations. But even if you abhor the Mouse, there’s something to be said for an experiment in community engineering that keeps attracting newcomers two decades later. It’s a success that Walt Disney would have celebrated.


Text: Liv Lewitschnik 

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